For those deciding to blog, send out email newsletters, or complete other online-related work, it’s important to become familiar with the many legal requirements for each online component. In this post, I’ll provide an overview. It’s information I learned over the course of eight years. I didn’t know anything when I began blogging. I just started writing. There’s much you need to know, however. I’ve pulled together some major considerations. It is not legal advice. Research more on your own and consult with attorneys if need be.
Of course there are laws related to online work! Each is important in its own right. Take time to familiarize yourself with each one.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
In 2009, the FTC released guidelines regarding endorsements. This affects bloggers who receive payment including products to review and income for endorsements. Bloggers must disclose such information so that readers know if a blogger was paid for an endorsement. Disclosure in the online world, be it websites or social media, is very important. Know the rules! Here are a few links.
- Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising – 16 CFR Part 255
- The FTC’s Endorsement Guides: What People Are Asking
This is a good resource to review from Socialmedia.org. It’s not a law, but it relates to the FTC ruling and provides sample guidelines to use regarding transparency. I learned of this many years ago. The toolkit is now archived, but I think information is still valuable. There’s some history regarding the FTC ruling as well. For that aspect, it’s definitely worth a read. Just remember that it’s archived and has been for some time. Here’s the link:
Socialmedia.org: Archive of the SocialMedia.org Disclosure Toolkit
All U.S. website content is copyrighted upon publishing. You can take an extra step and register your site content with the copyright office. Given the vast amount of information and resources available elsewhere on this topic, the fact that I’m not an attorney, and that this post is an overview of much information, I’m providing three links regarding copyright. One is for the U.S. Copyright office website. The second is for my favorite website on this topic, which I recommend you visit. The third is for a copyright option used all over the web. There is quite a bit of information in all places. Any time you can spend reviewing information on these three sites alone is time very well spent. So set aside a chunk of time, kick back with your tablet or laptop, and start reading!
It’s worth the time to familiarize yourself with copyright requirements and restrictions, fair use, public domain – all of it! This is especially true with regard to photos, which I address later in this post. Also, don’t limit yourself to just the three sources I’ve listed here. Copyright is a huge issue and there is much information available.
I’m not sure what happens in other countries regarding copyright requirements. That’s something to research!
Every blogger and webmaster should be aware of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). You should know what a takedown request is. If you allege that a person used your content without permission, plagiarized it, scraped it, or copied it in any way thereby breaking copyright laws, you have the option to file a DMCA takedown notice against them. You can do that with the offender’s hosting company (their TOS no doubt addresses DMCA), Google, and anywhere else it might come up.
Therefore, yes, you have recourse if someone steals your content. Be aware though, that the same applies to you. If you copy or use someone’s content illegally or without proper permissions, the author can file a DMCA takedown notice against you.
I’d like to suggest however, that at least in some cases, try and contact the person first and ask them to take down the content. It’s up to you and depends on the situation. Do you ask a site owner to take down some content? Do you file a DMCA takedown notice? Do you involve an attorney? It’s up to you. In the meantime, learn what the DMCA is.
On Your Website
I would consider including the following two items:
- Copyright information: how your content is copyrighted
- How people can use your content: when permission is required – or not!
Regarding copyright notices, you might also want to look at options for Creative Commons. You’ve no doubt seen Creative Commons images across the web. See if it’s something you’d like to use. Note that all U.S. website content is automatically copyrighted, but you can take extra steps to submit your site for copyright as well.
On Other Websites
For Your Webhost
Before you sign up to host your site with any hosting company, check their Terms of Service. You should know exactly what they require and allow before you sign up. It’s also important to know that so you don’t slip up and do something that breaks your TOS and they decide to shut you down. How might that happen? Well, a DMCA takedown notice might result in that, for one example.
It’s simple. If you have a website, you should have a privacy notice. If you use any kind of tracking for site statistics such as Google Analytics, you should have a privacy notice page. I believe that Google requires certain information for use of ads. If you collect information, you should define what you do with submitted information. Review what you’re using your site, what types of information is requested, what statistics are being tracked, and anything else related to privacy. Consult with an attorney if you need to and draft a privacy page.
ICANN requires that you ensure that your WHOIS listing is current and accurate. This is an annual requirement. I always receive a notice from my webhost. Check into this and put it on your to-do list! If your host doesn’t send you a reminder, find out when you need to check it.
Use of photographs and graphic images are always a source of confusion and potential trouble. You must be mindful of copyright and become familiar with fair use and public domain situations. To avoid copyright issues, I use stock photos I purchased, pictures I took myself, or graphics I made myself. I’ve written two tips posts about photos:
Don’t assume that it’s Ok to include any photo on your website. A blogger was sued by a photographer for using a copyrighted photo. Here’s her cautionary tale:
Tread carefully with photos! That’s why I mostly pay for them or take them myself. One other consideration is whether or not to include individuals in any photos you take. Assume you will need to obtain written permission from any person that’s in a photo you take and plan to upload somewhere.
Email marketing has specific requirements. You have to follow the laws, or email providers might take action such as closing your account. Pay close attention and play by the rules. It’s also important to review the requirements for individual email providers. They may have even more stringent requirements. Email laws and requirements are taken very seriously, so you should treat it accordingly. Take time to learn the laws and the requirements of your email provider. I’ve included some information below.
All those that sign up for your email newsletter must opt in. That means that they have to sign up via your website or social platform such as Facebook, a hardcopy signup sheet, or whatever method you use to gain subscribers. You should be able to produce proof that someone gave their permission for you to send an email. Both Constant Contact and Mailchimp provide double opt-in signup option to verify the subscription. You’ve no doubt seen those. It’s when you sign up for an email list but then have to verify the subscription by clicking a link in an email they send to you.
You must provide an unsubscribe link so that people can stop receiving the emails. You have to remove them from your list in a timely fashion. For the two email providers I mentioned, this is handled immediately. It’s handled differently, but it’s immediate.
You must identify the sender and add a physical address to each email.
You cannot send email spam. The email providers I’ve used have a spam checker that you can run before sending an email. I’ve used Constant Contact and Mailchimp. The spam checker doesn’t guarantee that some recipients might think that your email is not spam, but I think it’s helpful to check it when sending a test email. Also know that anyone that receives your email can flag it as spam. If you have too many of those flags, your provider might take action. Review the terms of service for your email provider.
There are laws in both the U.S. and Canada regarding email spam. If you live in either country or send email to subscribers in either country, you need to be familiar with these laws. I’m including links below.
United States: CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business
Canada: Canada’s Anti-Spam Law (CASL)
Contests, Giveaways, and Sweepstakes
There are rules for these types of promotions. I’m not as familiar with them. If you’re planning to run a promotion, check both for regulations and requirements in individual social platforms or with email providers. Facebook, for example, has definite rules to follow for these types of initiatives. Dig in and research before starting a promotion.
That’s what I have at the moment. As you can see, there are quite a few legal and regulatory concerns related to all aspects of managing an online presence. This post is just an overview and is not legal advice. Look into these items in more detail to determine how they apply to you and what actions you need to take. Consult with attorneys if need be. I hope this helps you in your online journey!
For other tips in this series, see the following post.